Kamma and Saṅkhāra, Cetanā and Sañcetanā

December 14, 2021; revised August 27, 2022; November 24, 2022

Cetanā expresses the “intention” via a set of cetasika. Kamma is the deed with that intention. Saṅkhāra is the “mental state” with that intention. Kāya, vaci, and mano saṅkhāra with cetanā lead to kāya, vaci, and mano kamma. However, only sañcetanā lead to akusala kamma and are responsible for the rebirth process.


1. Most people use the word “kamma” to indicate “bad deeds” or even “results of past bad deeds.” When something terrible happens, they say, “Oh, this is my kamma.”

  • But kamma is a generic word that means “action.” That could mean moving the body, speaking, or thinking (kāya, vaci, and mano kamma.) Kamma can be of mainly three types:
    (i) Neutral kamma: like using a knife to cut vegetables or asking directions from someone.
    (ii)  Akusala (or pāpa) kamma: e.g., stabbing someone with a knife or telling a lie to make money.
    (iii) Kusala (or puñña) kamma: e.g., using a knife to cut loose a trapped animal or teaching valuable something to others.
  • All three types are done with a specific intention. We all must engage in various kinds of kamma of the first type in our daily lives. The “intention” in the second type is bad or immoral, while that in the third type is good or moral.
  • The first type of kamma yields results that do not have “kammic consequences.” The second/third type can bring “bad/good results” at that time or in the future.
  • The “intention” is connected to the cetanā cetasika (mental factor) per a verse in the Nibbhedika Sutta (AN 6.63). Let us discuss that next.
Cētanā Is In Every Citta!

2. “Nibbedhika Sutta (AN 6.63)” is a vital sutta that explains many keywords in Buddha Dhamma. Toward the end, it defines kamma: “Cetanā, I tell you, is kamma. With intention, one does kamma through body, speech, and mind.” See Ref. 1.

  • Now, cetanā is a “universal cetasika,” meaning it is in every citta. This is a CRITICAL observation. We don’t do good or bad kamma at all times. Thus, kamma means any bodily activity, speech, or even thoughts. For example, we saw that even breathing happens with cittā.
  • Therefore, even any action, like lifting an arm, is a kamma. One may also speak and think about getting some task done that would NOT have morally good or bad intentions. Those would NOT belong to akusala, pāpa, puñña, or kusala kamma. They are just kamma. Such “neutral kamma” would have just cetanā cetasika in cittās without sobhana (good) or asobhana (bad) cetasika.

3. Any action, speech, or thought would have kammically-neutral kāya, vaci, and mano saṅkhāra associated with them.

  • If one does that task with lobha, dosa, moha, then it is an akusala (or pāpa) kamma. Another subtle way to say that is any action done with chandarāga (with a mindset that says worldly pleasures are worthwhile pursuing) has at least a trace of akusala nature.
  • A particular activity involving generosity, compassion, etc., is a puñña kamma. A kusala kamma is a “better version” of a puñña kamma done with an understanding of Tilakkhana. In some places in the Tipitaka, puñña kamma done without an understanding of Tilakkhana are referred to as “kāmāvacara kusala kamma.That means those are “good kamma” done with the expectation of “better rebirths/good vipāka” in the higher realms of the kāma loka (human and Deva realms.)
  • The same”good deeds (kamma)” are done by someone who comprehends the Four Noble Truths/Paṭicca Samuppāda/Tilakkhana; they would be pure kusala kamma. Such kusala kammā are done WITHOUT expectations for worldly benefits, but ONLY with the expectation of attaining Nibbāna and, thus, stopping the suffering-filled rebirth process.
What Is Cētanā?

4. Cētanā is a cetasika that is in every citta. There are seven such “universal cetasika” that is in every citta: Phassa (contact with an (ārammaṇa);   vēdanā (feeling);  saññā (perception);  cētanā (putting together all relevant mental factors); Ekaggata (One-pointedness);  jivitindriya (life faculty); manasikāra (memory.)

  • A citta vithi arises when a new ārammaṇa comes in. That contact with the new ārammaṇa is phassa. The mind “feels” that (vedana) and recognizes it (saññā) with the help of the manasikara cetasika that can recall similar past events. Ekaggata helps keep the mind focused on that ārammaṇa.
  • That is a very complex process that happens within a billionth of a second (lifetime of a citta.) See “Amazingly Fast Time Evolution of a Thought (Citta).” It is critical to read that post to understand this primary process.
  • Now we can begin to see the role of the cetanā cetasika. If the ārammaṇa is mind-pleasing, lobha (greed) can arise in the mind. When the cetanā cetasika “puts together the citta,” it becomes a “lobha citta.” On the other hand, seeing an enemy would generate dosa (anger), and the corresponding cittas would be angry because cetanā would incorporate the dosa cetasika into the cittas.
  • Going back to the types of kamma in #1 above, now we can make sense of the role of the cetanā cetasika. The “intention” comes from the types of cetasika that arise in the mind based on ārammaṇa. Since it is the cetanā cetasika that “constructs” a citta, such added cetasika will dictate the “intention.” This is a CRITICAL point to understand. I highly recommend reading the above-suggested post and the links in that post.
Kammic Energy Arises In the Mind

5. As we know, the three types of kamma are kāya, vaci, and mano kamma. Therefore, all three types of kamma accumulation occur in the mind, with cetanā incorporating other mental factors (cetasika) such as lobha, dasa, alobha, and adosa.

  • Note that cetanā is a cetasika in every citta, together with vedana and saññā; see Ref. 2. The cetanā cetasika “incorporates other relevant cetasika such as lobha, dosa, alobha, amoha” to a citta. The “intention” comes from the types of cetasika included. For example, stealing happens with a “greedy intention in mind,” where cetanā has included the lobha cetasika to that citta. Thus, cetanā is like a supervisor/administrator who adds other relevant cetasika (good or bad) based on the “state of mind.” It is good to read the post referred to in Ref. 2.

6. Since cetanā cetasika is ANY citta, it is in ALL cittas of an Arahant or a Buddha. They also do things, speak, and think with specific “intentions.”

  • But an Arahant would not do anything, speak, or think about hurting or deceiving others. That happens only when “asobhana cetasika” like lobha and dosa are incorporated into cittā by the cetanā cetasika. That gives rise to “sañcetanā.” Thus, Arahants do not generate sañcetanā.
  • Even when sobhana cetasika” like alobha and adosa are incorporated into cittā by the cetanā cetasika, they are still sañcetanā IF one has not comprehended the dangers of the rebirth process, i.e., since one still has a (weaker level) of avijjā. That is why one needs to comprehend the Four Noble Truths/Paṭicca Samuppāda/Tilakkhana. See, “Kilesa – Relationship to Akusala, Kusala, and Puñña Kamma.”
How Cētanā Become Sañcetanā

7. The word “sañcetanā” comes from “san” + “cetanā.” Thus, it means cetanā cetasika has incorporated “san” that can contribute to generating kammic energy for future rebirths. I have discussed the importance of “san” in many posts. See “San – A Critical Pāli Root.”

  • Therefore, saṅkhāra are associated with cetanā and abhisaṅkhāra (those that contribute to the rebirth process) involve sañcetanā
  • A Buddha or an Arahant would not generate abhisaṅkhāra with sañcetanā, but they do generate saṅkhāra with cetanā until Parinibbāna.
  • This is why the types of saṅkhāra that arise due to the ignorance of the Four Noble Truths (i.e., “avijjā paccayā saṅkhārā”) are kāya saṅkhāra, vacī saṅkhāra, and citta saṅkhāra that involve kāya sañcetanā, vaci sañcetanā, and mano (or citta) sañcetanā.
  • It is imperative to understand these basic concepts.

1. FromNibbedhika Sutta (AN 6.63): “Kammaṁ, bhikkhave, veditabbaṁ …pe… kammanirodhagāminī paṭipadā veditabbāti, iti kho panetaṁ vuttaṁ. Variant: kammanirodhagāminī → sabbatthapi evamevaKiñcetaṁ paṭicca vuttaṁ? Cetanāhaṁ, bhikkhave, kammaṁ vadāmi. Cetayitvā kammaṁ karoti—kāyena vācāya manasā.

2. The “Sammādiṭṭhi Sutta (MN 9)” defines nāma (mentality) as, Vedanā, saññā, cetanā, phasso, manasikāro—idaṁ vuccatāvuso, nāmaṁ.” In Abhidhamma, two more cetasika of jivitindriya and ekaggata are listed together with the above five cetasika. Thus, there are seven cetasika in every citta. The point is that “intention” is not a good translation for cetanā. One’s “intention” comes through the types of other good or bad cetasika (such as lobha or alobha) included in the citta. The cetana cetasika “puts together appropriate cetasikā and builds the citta.” See “What is a Thought?

3. “Paṭiccasamuppāda Vibhaṅga” states: “Kāyasañcetanā kāya saṅkhāro, vacīsañcetanā vacī saṅkhāro, manosañcetanā citta saṅkhāro. Ime vuccanti “avijjā paccayā saṅkhārā”.

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